Film Review: Only God Forgives

Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs an amateur boxing club in Bangkok as a front for drug smuggling. After his brother is killed, his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) orders him to avenge his brother’s death. However, local law enforcer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is a constant presence, one that is both ethereal and deadly.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous collaboration with Ryan Gosling, 2011’s Drive, has become one of the most revered films of the past few years with many praising Gosling’s ‘strong, silent type’ performance as well as Winding Refn’s existentialist themes and stunning cinematography. With Only God Forgives, both parties offer up more of the same, although those hoping for Drive 2.0 will be sorely disappointed.

It’s difficult to really get your head around Only God Forgives in that it’s one of those films that will likely reflect back at you a piece of yourself, giving out whatever you bring to it. It’s a very voyeuristic film; the POV shots placing you within the characters, Julian in particular, which allows you to draw your own conclusions, something that will likely empower some and frustrate others.

Ryan Gosling

The film’s story is reasonably straightforward but there’s a huge amount going on beneath the surface, if you want to see it that is. With castration anxiety, oedipal issues and a heap else, Only God Forgives is littered with subtexts and allegorical sections that really give the film more depth than it first appears, although the fact that these themes aren’t plainly laid out may irk those who prefer a more conventional, straightforward narrative.

The aesthetics of the film may also be slightly contentious for some. The cinematography is undoubtedly impressive, but it does feel slightly contrived at times. Everything is lit to within an inch of its life, often bathed in various hues of red, pink and blue. It’s so highly stylised that it can feel like you’re watching a slideshow of neon-drenched artwork. This does, however, give the film an ethereal, nightmarish quality that, for me, was wholly absorbing.

Performance-wise, it’s difficult to really elaborate on anyone other than Kristin Scott Thomas as Julian’s disturbing yet cowardly mother, Crystal. Vithaya Pansringarm just really hurts people and Ryan Gosling stares at things, and that about sums up those performances. Scott Thomas is excellent, however. As Crystal she’s a truly repulsive creature but steals every scene she’s in. When Julian tells her that his brother raped and killed a young girl, her response is simply, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” She’s the beating heart of the film and, although abhorrent, constantly demands your attention.

Kristin Scott Thomas

Mention has to go to the Cliff Martinez’s superb score. Martinez contributed heavily to the excellent score for Drive and he’s once again delivered the goods. A mix of unnerving, industrial pieces mixed with more catchier tunes really helps add a huge amount of atmosphere to the film and is just as essential a component as the direction or cinematography.

Everything about Only God Forgives feels very deliberate and methodical. From the framing of the shots to the slow, purposeful movement of the characters, it’s clear that Winding Refn had a very clear vision of what he wanted to create, almost regardless of the effect it would subsequently have on the audience. In fact, everything feels so planned out that it comes close to crossing the line into pretentious self-parody territory at times. If Quentin Tarantino was trying to make a Stanley Kubrick film, Only God Forgives would be the result.

Having said that, it drew me in, asked questions of me and made me think, and not a lot of films have done that this year.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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43 thoughts on “Film Review: Only God Forgives

  1. Tyson Carter says:

    Excellent write up my friend. I wish I knew what most of those terms meant 😉

    I really wanted to love this, but just couldn’t. Bizarre summed it up for me, the trailers led me to believe there would be lots of action. Stupid trailers, thats why I never watch them.

    • Thanks mate, not sure I understand some of them to be honest 🙂

      Yeah the trailers didn’t do this any favours at all. I had an idea of what to expect purely from other reviews and I wasn’t expecting much to be honest, which might have helped me like it a bit more. It;s understandable that this has been so polarising though.

  2. Brittani Burnham says:

    Great review! Even though I didn’t like the film myself, I like how you described it here. Especially the part about watching a slide show of neon art work. That is so true.

    • Thanks! It did feel to me at times like the director was trying to create a work of art with each shot rather than creating a series of shots that tell a story. I think he got away with it though, there’s just enough going on to keep the story going as well.

  3. keith7198 says:

    Solid, solid review.I sound like a broken record on the forums but I wasn’t just blown away with Drive. Liked it ok but didn’t love it. That also describes my thoughts on Gosling as an actor. So this hasn’t been high on my list. I do really like Kristin Scott Thomas though!

    • Cheers man. There are plenty of people who aren’t on board with Drive, definitely. I actually think Gosling is a decent actor but this doesn’t show it at all. He was good in Crazy Stupid Love though which is a world away from this. KSL is excellent though; performance-wise she’s head and shoulders above everyone else here.

  4. CMrok93 says:

    A very strange flick, but coming from both Refn and Gosling, I didn’t expect anything less. Good review.

  5. theipc says:

    When I first watched this I though “Wow, this isn’t very good. Why is everyone just staring at things?” After several weeks of reflection: I hate this movie.

  6. Mark Walker says:

    Outstanding sir! I notice that we often agree on movies but I’ve never been so pleased to see this review from you. It definitely does have a lot more going on under the surface. I can only assume that some viewers weren’t really looking for it. I know I never when I seen it the first time.

    • Thank you may friend. Haha, I’m more than happy to stand up for this one, I definitely got your back here. Seems there aren’t too many of us who liked this one. I’ve only seen it the once but I definitely want to see it again, definitely seems one of those films that you’ll get the more you watch it.

  7. Nick Powell says:

    One of the more positive reviews of this film I have read. You got my interested in it too. Sounds like I need to see it for Kristin Scott Thomas alone.

  8. Well, I really liked this film and I love Drive. Glad to hear you think much of the same. Scott Thomas was terrific in making the viewer completely hate her. Great write-up!

    • Oh it’s definitely possible to like both films, I loved Drive. I just reckon those expecting another film like Drive will be disappointed and I think that might be where a lot of the negativity has come from. Glad you’re on board with this one though Joseph. Thanks man!

  9. Great post! I’m watching this film this weekend….I really love Kristin Scott Thomas, and this is certainly not a role I’m used to watching her in.

  10. Sterling work mate. Glad you liked it as much as me. Nice point about it being the result of a Tarantino/Kubrick mash-up.

  11. ruth says:

    Hi Chris, sorry to be such a gloomy gus but you already know this isn’t the type of film I’d go see. I don’t think Refn’s style is for me, and I’m not exactly fond of Gosling either so yeah, I’m afraid this is a skip for me mate. Fantastic review though, you have such a way with words!

    • Thanks very much Ruth, very kind of you to say so 🙂 and there’s no gloom attached to not being a big fan of this kind of thing whatsoever. We all have our likes and dislikes, that’s part of why movies are so great! And this one is pretty violent at times and pretty weird so you certainly won’t be alone in giving it a wide berth!

  12. After watching this film I wanted to fight Refn.

  13. sati says:

    You liked it more than I did 🙂 I usually take time and effort to look for hidden meanings but that film just seemed nonsensical – and boring – to me. I liked Scott Thomas and Martinez’s score but Gosling walking around, freaking out that poor prostitute with his odd behavior just made me laugh.

  14. Alex Withrow says:

    QT making a Kubrick… now that is one hell of an interesting way to look at this film. I really dig that.

    I agree, everything in OGF feels deliberate, but I actually quite enjoyed it. We’re in full agreement on this one.

    • Not many of us who are willing to stand up for this one it seems, Alex. But yeah I definitely saw bits of Kubrick and Tarantino in there, what with the symmetry of a lot of the shots and the some of the old ultra violence. I’m sure Refn would probably deny that though, he seems very intent on making his own statements.

  15. ckckred says:

    Nice review. I still haven’t seen this film. Despite my love for Drive, the negative reviews have kept me pushing this movie back so I’m glad to see a good score.

  16. table9mutant says:

    Great review! Hmm… I was thinking of skipping this (it’s pretty much gone from cinemas anyway) as it’s had such horrible reviews. And although I love Drive & Gosling, I’m starting NOT to as I think both have gotten way too much hype. But after reading your review, I’ll definitely check it out eventually because I trust your opinion probably more than anyone else’s here. But – SHHH – don’t tell anyone that! It’s our little secret. 😉

    • Haha, well thank you! I’ll keep it to myself 😉

      I think this is worth a watch purely because it’s been so divisive. You might love it or you might hate it, it’s a fine line with this one I think. It’s one of those that even though I quite liked it, I can totally get why a lot of people didn’t; it’s a pretty acquired taste I reckon.

  17. le0pard13 says:

    Fine look at this film. I rated it a tad lower (3.5) than you, but can see many of your points about the film, Chris. It might not be popular, but it’s bound to reach cult status.

  18. Honestly, what a waste of time (not your review – the film haha). Firstly, Refn should have kept the film completely silent considering how awful the dialogue was. Refn makes his film more about the mood than anything else, but when everything else is embarrassingly falling apart, its hard to let the mood take over. Gosling is unfortunately stuck playing a dull character that I don’t feel he had the right presence for, and when he finally shows some emotion it becomes so over the top, it’s laughable.

    I love me some Kristen Scott Thomas, but she came across very amateurish.

    Nice review, but Only God Forgives stands as one of the worst films of the year for me.

    • Haha, well our differing opinions pretty much sums up the reaction to this film! I thought KST was really good here but maybe that’s because I was more into the film than you. I can’t disagree with any of your points as it’s one of those films that everyone seems to have wildly different opinions about. I think Refn makes films for himself though, so I don;t know whether this one just didn’t translate to the audience quite as well, as I’m sure to him it was exactly as he wanted it.

  19. Zoë says:

    🙂 Brilliant review. I hope to be checking this out soon.

  20. Nostra says:

    One of those movies you either love or hate, but I loved the hell out of it. It looked stunning and I liked its story.

    btw, there is a small typo at the beginning “2001′s Drive”, should be 2011.

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